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RASTECH24: Optimism returns to industry during Charlotte, NC conference

June 7, 2024  By  Jean Ko Din


RASTECH 2024 brought together about 350 RAS professionals to Charlotte, N.C. on June 5-6. (Photo: Anne Beswick, RAStech Magazine)

 

Optimism seems to be returning in the industry, but at the same time, many are still hungry for one shining success story that will lead the way to a booming future.

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This was the general feeling that recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) professionals expressed during the annual RASTECH 2024 Conference and Trade Fair. About 350 operators, builders, investors, researchers and industry suppliers gathered at Charlotte, N.C. on June 5-6 to talk about the challenges that face their businesses.

“It seems like there’s an early optimism coming back to the U.S. which is good,” said Marianne Naess, CEO of Great Northern Salmon Inc., a RAS-project based in Millinocket, Maine that recently changed its name from Katahdin Salmon. “It’s great to hear what’s going on with different projects, vendors, and just what’s happening in the industry at the moment.”

The two days had a packed program with relevant discussions that were divided into three session rooms for Business, Operation, and Research. The Business room was geared towards those who are interested in learning more about what it takes to run a successful RAS business. The Operation room was about sharing technical knowledge used in a facility. The Research room brought together the latest studies that help inform the industry’s future innovation and development.

More than 70 industry suppliers were represented in the exhibit hall, sharing the latest products and services.

“Every industry is on a different level. The more we get together and share about his or her own field, I think the conversion will be faster,” said Aran Lavi, RASTECH 2024 exhibitor and senior vice-president of Israel-based UV disinfection technology provider, Atlantium. “We all have something to learn from each other.”

Standardization

As the industry continues to mature, standardization must naturally become the next step.

Aqua Founders Capital managing directors, Ohad Maiman and Thue Holm, shared about their current plans to develop modular systems technology to help address the challenges of capital-intensive RAS building.

“High CapEx (capital expenditure) and lengthy construction is a huge challenge for the industry,” said Maiman, during his and Holm’s keynote presentation. “One of the most frustrating experiences I had during Kingfish (Company) is standing by the hole in the ground, waiting for concrete to dry. And that translates to lower IRR (internal rate of return) for investors.”

“It is an extremely complicated project process and many farms are not equipped to take on a big project,” Holm added. “You start out with a small team and then suddenly you are in a huge construction project that requires a lot of complexity. And often, you have suppliers that haven’t been working in that area, or suppliers that have been working in the area but never have built a fish farm before. So, it is really, really challenging and we’ve seen that all around the world.”

Farm in a Box is Aqua Founder’s answer to this challenge. The concept is to provide a modular, plug-and-play RAS system that can be duplicated to the right production scale for its customer. Maiman said that as a firm, they are convinced that advanced technology can help with this challenge and bring the sector to a maturity where there is a “rule of thumb” on construction CapEx and faster assembly.

The Aqua Founders duo said this prototype concept promises to complete RAS facility construction within 30 weeks, from start to finish. If two teams are on site, Maiman said the timeline can even be halved to 15 weeks.

“Honestly, every project I’ve done in the history of my design career has been a custom solution. That’s where everyone comes to you with a different set of criteria,” said K.C. Hosler, chief technology officer of Canadian-based PR Aqua. “But if you have standard modules,… you would save a lot of design cost, you can gain confidence in the performance of it because you’re using something that’s been pre-engineered and optimized.”

Hosler served as session chair of “De-risking through design” at RASTECH 2024.

Investment synergies

Max Holtzman, principal of portfolio governance at Ocean 14 Capital, talked about the firm’s investment thesis of building industrial platforms by putting companies together and finding synergies through cross-channel opportunities and integration throughout the supply chain value chain.

“We really think that the value of a one plus one is three by putting companies together on a platform and helping them find synergies through cross-channel opportunity substitution,” he said at the “Investors’ Forum” session on the second day of the conference.

Kimberly Player, director of research at Equilibrium Capital, and Howard Tang, CEO and partner of Peritus Capital, came together for a fireside chat to talk about Pacifico Aquaculture and what attracted both firms to develop the striped bass RAS project based in Mexico. Equilibrium’s Controlled Environment Food Fund II is financing the construction of Pacifico’s nursery facility in Baja California, which will allow the company to scale its production capacity.

“I think one of the most rewarding moments in my seven and a half years with Equilibrium was the closing of the Pacifico deal last year,” said Player.

“It was like all the research you’ve done, the networking… the collaboration, the learnings from people like yourself (the audience), and working with two absolutely wonderful investment team colleagues, one of which are in the room today, to actually see that deal close.”

Player said one of the appealing aspects of the Pacifico deal was the opportunity to diversify Equilibrium’s portfolio which was too concentrated in the greenhouse sector. Tang discussed how they like to think about marrying the right investment partners that have a similar vision and approach to investing in and growing aquaculture businesses.

Matt Craze, head of Spheric Research, unveiled a new point system for its annual industry report that tracks the progress of RAS projects around the world. (Photo: Jean Ko Din, RAStech Magazine)

Production breakthrough

Matt Craze, head of Spheric Research, predicts that the industry will see a breakthrough year in RAS production.

“Even though you have a much smaller group of projects, and salmonids, there’s a lot there’s going to be a lot more production now,” he said during his presentation at the “Investors’ Forum” session.

Craze debuted a new point system for his research at the conference that scores 140 projects from around the world, based on its project stage. Spheric Research publishes an annual market report called the “Land-Based Aquaculture Report”.

This new data set, to be published with the 2024 report, was developed to help identify regions where RAS project developments are progressing and where it is slowing to a holding pattern. Governmental support seems to be a major factor in the success of RAS builds around the world.

“In retrospect, what we found was that if we looked at the change in status of all these projects over the last four years… we apportion points. And on the other hand, if if there are setbacks, we give a negative point score,” Craze explained.

“And what we found was that when we ran this model, and it may look a little bit different in the final report… What we see is that in Europe, it is easier to develop a project than in North America, let’s say. Asia is quite high, but Japan really changes that index. There’s a dozen projects in Japan, and some of them have had really good traction.”


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